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By a margin of two votes, economic prospects for two major parts of Louisiana's economy - the sugar industry and the port business - were viewed Thursday in a sharply different light.

On a 217-215 vote earlier in the day, the U.S. House gave final congressional approval to the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the six Latin American nations of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republican

Almost until the time of the vote, the sugar industry, which strongly opposed the pact, had hopes that it would be defeated. But Dickie Ellender, a sugar grower near Houma, credited - or blamed - the White House for pulling out political cards and twisting arms to get the deal done.

"I'm a Republican and I'm very disappointed in this president," Ellender said. "There's such thing as playing hardball, and there's such a thing as playing dirty ball. And this was dirty ball."

Jim Simon, president of the Thibodaux-based American Sugar Cane League, said the industry knew "the vote was going to be razor thin either way." He said President Bush's direct campaign with Republican congressmen to get CAFTA passed likely was the deciding move.

The vote, which was supposed to take 15 minutes, dragged on for an hour as negotiations swirled around the floor among GOP leaders and rank-and-file members reluctant to vote for the agreement. In the end, 27 Republicans voted against CAFTA, while 15 Democrats supported it.

Among the Louisiana delegation, Republicans Rodney Alexander, Jim McCrery, Richard Baker and Democrat William Jefferson voted for the agreement. Democrat Charles Melancon and Republicans Charles Boustany and Bobby Jindal voted against CAFTA. Both of the state's U.S. senators - Democrat Mary Landrieu and Republican David Vitter - voted against the deal earlier.

Jefferson represents New Orleans, where officials of the city's port and trade-related businesses strongly supported CAFTA. Port of New Orleans president Gary LaGrange said the volume of cargo between New Orleans and the CAFTA nations could increase six-fold after all of the tariffs between the United States and those countries are lifted.

"We commend congressmen Jefferson, McCrery, Alexander and Baker for taking a courageous stand for free trade," LaGrange said.

But for sugar interests, the House vote set up a gloomy future for their business.

"The passage of CAFTA will ship American jobs overseas and jeopardize 27,000 workers in Louisiana," said Melancon, a former head of the American Sugar Cane League. "In our state, $2 billion a year in economic impact has just been dropped from the frying pan straight into the fire."

Although CAFTA backers said the amount of sugar that will be imported into the state is small, the industry says sugar-producing nations that are starting free-trade negotiations with the United States will expect the same deal.

"They are lined up champing at the bit to get to our market," Ellender said. "We believe in free trade, but we don't think one industry should be lined up to be a sacrificial lamb."

Jefferson, a New Orleans congressman, said benefits for the Port of New Orleans and related businesses were the deciding factor in his vote. He said Louisiana is the fourth largest exporter to the region.

But Jefferson said that on behalf of Louisiana's sugar industry, he would press for a worldwide sugar trade agreement through the World Trade Organization.

"No precedent relative to sugar has been set with CAFTA," Jefferson said.

Other Louisiana commodity growers - such as those producing soybeans, rice and cotton - said they had been in favor of CAFTA, but all avoided direct campaigns against the sugar industry. A study by the American Farm Bureau Federation concluded that losses sustained by increased sugar imports from the CAFTA nations would far outstrip the benefits the other commodities would get through increased exports.

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who had called on the president to withdraw CAFTA, said she worries that mass importation of sugar from Latin America will crash Louisiana sugar prices.

But McCrery, of Shreveport, said he disagreed with the sugar industry's conclusions.

"This bill does not do great damage to the sugar industry," he said. "It allows only a small amount of sugar into this country, while it will have a tremendous overall positive impact."

McCrery said CAFTA would help stabilize Latin American democracies and enable the United States to retain influence.

"This trade pact had more to do with geopolitics than it had to do with economics," he said.

Baker, of Baton Rouge, said he remained undecided on CAFTA for months out of concern for the sugar industry, but decided to vote in favor of the deal because of "my conviction that free trade in general is a vital component of long-term economic growth and job creation" that would increase exports of other Louisiana farm commodities and chemicals, and boost ports.

Alexander, of Quitman, like Baker, said he held out a long as he could in hopes of helping the sugar industry. He said manufacturing companies in his district, along with producers of other farm commodities, asked him to vote for the agreement.

"I will continue to work with Louisiana sugar farmers to help them out, but I voted for CAFTA because every other agriculture commodity in Louisiana stands to gain from the trade legislation," Alexander said.

Simon said it would be vital for the sugar industry to be at the forefront of future trade negotiations.

"Hopefully, we can get some concessions in future trade agreements and not be forced into a corner like we were with CAFTA," he said. "With future trade deals, we hope to be part of the negotiations from the beginning."Associated Press

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